Here’s a fact you may find surprising: It’s normal for adults to have ten to 40 moles. Most of those moles develop during early childhood and before 25 years of age. Yet when is a mole not just a mole but something more serious?
First of all, what is a mole? These brown or black growths, which can appear alone or in clusters and be raised or flat, are composed of melanocytes, a specialized skin cell that produces the darkening pigment melanin. Some moles change slowly over time while others never change and yet others disappear completely. In some cases hairs sprout from their centers.
Types of moles
About 1 percent of people have congenital nevi (nevi is plural for nevus, another word for mole), which are moles present at birth. Congenital nevi are slightly more likely to develop into skin cancer (melanoma, the most serious type) than are moles that develop after birth.
A more common type of mole is a dysplastic (atypical) nevus, which is usually larger than the end of a pencil eraser and irregular in shape. Dysplastic nevi tend to be uneven in color, with lighter edges and a darker center. Anyone who has 10 or more dysplastic nevi are about 12 times more likely to develop melanoma than those with fewer such moles.
By far the most common mole type is called, not surprisingly, the common mole. These are typically found on skin areas above the waist and exposed to the sun. About 300 million Americans have common moles, which are usually about the width of a pencil eraser, are oval or round, have a smooth surface, and are slightly raised. These growths are not cancerous, although people who have 50 or more common moles have an increased risk of developing melanoma.
Signs a mole may be cancerous
The good news is that the vast majority of moles are benign. Chances that a mole is cancerous increase if a mole meets these ABCDEs:
Asymmetry: Changes shape, such as one half doesn’t look like the other half
Borders: Has edges that are irregular or ragged
Color: Changes colors or shades of black, tan, brown, white, red, or blue
Diameter: Is larger than the diameter of a pencil eraser
Evolution: A new mole suddenly appears after age 25
Also beware if a mole itches, becomes painful or tender, or begins to bleed or ooze.
The Canadian Skin Cancer Foundation recommends that everyone should examine their body for moles once a month. Your examination can be done in front of a mirror and also using a hand mirror to see those hard-to- see places. Look everywhere, including places not exposed to the sun, such as your armpits, soles of your feed, and buttocks. Melanoma most often develops on the lower leg in women and on the back in men.
If any of the above ABCDEs are true, you should make an appointment to see a dermatologist as soon as possible. Depending on what your dermatologist finds when doing an examination, he or she may take a skin biopsy to determine if the growth is cancerous and how deeply it has penetrated the skin.
Written by Deborah Mitchell. Deborah Mitchell is passionate about personal health and the well-being of animals and the planet. She has authored, coauthored, and ghostwritten more than 40 books, contributes regularly to several websites, and shares information on physical, emotional, and spiritual health on her blog, deborahmitchellbooks.com.
Canadian Skin Cancer Foundation. Early detection. Retrieved March 11, 2017.
WebMD. Moles and skin cancer screening. Retrieved March 11, 2017.